Striking convergence in the mouthpart evolution of stream-living algae grazers



This scanning-electron microscopic study demonstrates the convergent evolution of the mouthparts of various herbivorous stream animals (insects from different orders, an isopod, snails, fish, and a tadpole) feeding on epilithic algal pastures. This food source is rich but is often difficult to harvest. Nevertheless, a large number of species can live on it because they have evolved highly specialized mouthparts. There are four functional problems that an algae grazer has to solve: the algae must be removed from the stone, they have to be collected and crushed, and a current shield is needed to prevent the water flow sweeping away the food.

Among the 30 algae grazers examined in this study, a limited number of morphological solutions have been found for each of these adaptational problems. There are multiple evolutionary pathways for mouthpart adaptation and even closely related species have often evolved different types of tools for the same function. This refects the existence of a certain amount of evolutionary scope. Such freedom of evolution is present, however, only at the beginning of the adaptiogenesis of an algae grazer. Once one of the evolutionary pathways is taken, further improvement of the mouthparts is possible only by the refinement of the ‘chosen’ type of tools. The consequence of this is that a large number of astonishing convergences have occurred in algae grazers that have independently trodden the same evolutionary pathway.